Can the Hurricanes Compete?

With the final stretch of the 2010-11 season underway, the Carolina Hurricanes have their eyes set on the playoffs.

Led by head coach Paul Maurice, Carolina has taken major steps forward since their early season debacle last year. With only 18 games remaining and the trade deadline in the past, the final makeup of the Hurricane’s roster is coming into focus.

We know Carolina is good, but how good? Will they get swept out of the playoffs in the first round or make a run for the Cup?

The ‘Canes have been wavering around the final playoff spot for the better part of the 2010-11 campaign, never falling far behind or storming ahead of their competition. Due to a unique mixture of positive and negative trends, they’ve been able to maintain a relatively consistent pace all year.

An encouraging quality in this year’s team has been their ability to maintain a lead. Maurice’s squad is a remarkable 21-0 when leading after two periods. This impressive statistic reveals a lot about the ‘Canes, including the strong goaltending they’ve received from Cam Ward.

Carolina’s All-Star goaltender has faced more shots than anyone else in the league this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from having a fantastic season. Ward’s .920 save percentage is the highest of his career. Coupled with his current success, he has built himself a reputation as a playoff performer. Ward’s GAA in 41 playoff games is 2.38, compared to a career 2.77 average in the regular season.

To truly gauge Ward’s impact on the ‘Canes, one must look beyond the numbers. He may not put up the most impressive stats in the league (2.70 GAA), but he always seems to step up his game when his team needs it the most. With defense being the ‘Canes biggest deficiency, Ward has been left out to dry a lot this year. It’s his ability to maintain composure and make several big saves in a row that has made the difference. There are a lot of goaltenders in this league that can make a big stop when his team needs it; there aren’t many who can shut down massive attacks on a consistent basis like Ward.

Along with goaltending, Carolina’s offense has been a major plus this season. They are currently eighth in the league in scoring, averaging 2.84 goals per game.

Captain Eric Staal leads his team in that department (60 points), followed by rookie sensation Jeff Skinner (47 points). In addition to the big scorers, Carolina’s role players have been a big reason for the team’s offensive success. Forwards Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu, and Jussi Jokinen have all been big contributors up front. While these three may never be confused with the likes of Staal, their consistent offensive output has had a major impact. Not once has Cole, Ruutu, or Jokinen gone more than five games without registering a point this year.

While the ‘Canes have turned lead protection into a science, they’ve struggled mightily fighting from behind. Carolina is 2-20-4 when trailing after two periods (that’s a .077 winning percentage). This does not bode well for a team that will have to play one of the East’s best teams in the opening round (if they make the playoffs). Along the same lines, the ‘Canes have an anemic .243 winning percentage when conceding the first goal of the game.

It is no secret that Carolina’s biggest weakness thus far has been their defense. The Hurricanes have given up 33.7 shots against per game this season, good for last in the league. They also have the 23rd ranked penalty kill, only neutralizing 80.3 percent of their opponent’s power plays.

General Manager Jim Rutherford hopes that the trade-deadline acquisition of Bryan Allen can add stability to his team’s blueline, though the ‘Canes gave up 42 shots to the Panthers in Allen’s debut (despite only allowing one goal against).

If Maurice can get his team to lower the number of shots against, it can go a long way towards making Carolina a true playoff contender. The Hurricanes are currently 25th in the league in winning percentage when they are outshot. One issue that contributes to the ‘Canes high number of shots against is the team’s failures in the faceoff circle. Carolina is currently last in the league in faceoff percentage (44.3%).

Based on these trends, it’s hard to predict how the Hurricanes will fair if they make the playoffs. It’s likely that it will come down to whether or not they are able to get out in front early and prevent their opponent from overwhelming Ward.

If Carolina can build early leads and swing momentum in its favor through the first two periods, they can compete with any team in this league.

For updates on the Hurricanes from the press box and locker room, you can follow Andy on Twitter @harshrewind

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